How to (Unsuccessfully) Deal With a Workplace Bully

Every day people go in to work at jobs they can’t afford to quit with co-workers who make a genuine effort to bully and humiliate them. Too often, fighting back isn’t an option, and even if it is, it’s not guaranteed to make a difference.
Publish date:
December 10, 2012
career, work, bullies, office

About a month ago, I took a peek at my rapidly dwindling bank account and realized it was time to start looking for another regular paycheck. This meant dusting off and revising my resume, which -- as the years have gone on -- has become an increasingly strange and eccentric document.

I’ve already detailed several of the gigs I’ve had in the past here at xoJane, including my stint in porn, the two-and-a-half years I spent ripping off poor people and a brief sojourn in advertising that was the complete opposite of everything you’ve ever seen on “Mad Men.”

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Such is the nature of many writers’ lives. For every successful freelancer who manages to consistently pay the bills one hard-fought assignment at a time, there are hundreds of folks like me whose careers are entirely based on random flukes that only briefly (if ever) allow them to support themselves through writing alone (I still have no idea what kind of cosmic forces had to align the one year I managed to pay my rent doing nothing but writing short fiction -- I just know they haven’t realigned since).

Still the dream persists, which often means choosing terrible, obviously dead-end jobs over anything that might actually result in a career. Better to work a job you’d happily quit in a heartbeat, than risk being kept from realizing your ambitions by a pair of velvet handcuffs.

That’s why, in 2007 -- after four-and-a-half years writing books about the supernatural, urban legends and horror movies -- I found myself applying for a job at the local call centre of a major transnational pizza chain you’ve all heard of and hate (assuming you actually know what pizza is supposed to really taste like).

I had burnt out on the ghost books, having reached the point where I had heard every conceivable ghost story a half dozen times and written variations on each of them at least twice, if not more. The problem was that the gig had been far from lucrative (during my best years I earned about $28,000) and I had no savings to get me through to my next gig. After weeks of looking for any job I figured I could tolerate, this pizza job proved to be my best bet.

As soon as I arrived on my first day, it became immediately apparent how much I stood out from my fellow employees -- mostly due to my having a penis. (It turned out there was one other male employee, but he wasn’t there that day.)

The boss was Penny, a perpetually cheerful mother of two who clearly wanted the place to have a happy, family-like vibe. Sitting in the corner was Amelia, who looked like she stepped straight out of an episode of “Sex and the City” and was working at the centre part time as a second job to save for her upcoming destination wedding. And on the left hand side of the room, sitting together, were the two sisters -- Kylie and Rhonda. (Note: I’ve changed all of these names.)

The two sisters were watching a movie on a portable DVD player and made no attempt to acknowledge me as I sat down to be trained by Penny. Amelia chatted politely with the two of us, asking me questions about myself in a way that made me immediately adore her. The only times I heard Kylie and Rhonda speak during that shift was when they answered calls and took people’s orders.

But as the shifts went on, it became clear that Rhonda wasn’t unfriendly, she just felt no compunction to be social, which I could totally respect. I honestly didn’t mind the silence that inevitably ensued during the shifts where we were paired together, because when circumstances did require us to engage each other, she was perfectly pleasant and easy to deal with.

Kylie, on the other hand, was a total nightmare person. As the weeks passed, it became evident that she did not respect me as a person. I know this because she called me a “loser” as often as she could. Not jokingly or teasingly, but with genuine hatred and derision. Anytime I tried to talk to her for any reason, she’d respond with a grunt of audible disgust and -- more often than not -- refuse to say anything beyond that. When she did say more, it was always with a tone of supreme annoyance, and would almost inevitably be capped with an insult regarding my intelligence.

She REALLY didn’t like me.

What had I done to earn her disapproval? I honestly have no idea, because there was no inciting incident to justify this level of hostility. It was clearly personal, though, since she was capable of being sweet and nice to our other co-workers (if not our customers) and of expressing sentiments that weren’t 100% hateful whenever they were around. But when they were gone and it was just the two of us, she would spend the shift glowering angrily, as I counted down the minutes until I could escape her presence.

And those turned out to be the good times. When I finally cracked and told Penny just how terrible Kylie was treating me (which she lamely justified by saying she was offended by how I never said “Hello” to her, even though the only reason I stopped was because the only response my previous greetings ever received was the already mentioned grunt of disgust), she was officially reprimanded, which she responded to by turning the bee-yotch up to a full 11.

From that point on, I would come in to work and find her blasting Nickelback-soundalike music from a personal stereo, which she only ever turned down when a call came in -- a call that I always had to answer, because she wouldn’t even bother turning her phone on, forcing me to do all the work. If I even looked in her direction, she’d growl an obscenity at me.

I fought back as best as I could. I would get up suddenly and just leave the room at random moments and not come back until 30 minutes later. I’d ignore her if for some reason she actually had to speak to me. I’d respond to her name-calling with some of my own. I always felt bad about all of this, but it was the only way I could think of to survive what was becoming an increasingly untenable situation.

We were then told that the centre was going to be shut down and Penny, Rhonda and Amelia all quit. This meant that Kylie and I now had to spend even more time alone together. She got her best revenge the night she took off early and left me by myself for two hours on a Friday night. At one point I had a backlog of 40 callers, all of whom insisted on speaking to a manager who no longer existed for having to wait so long to make their order. They all assumed I was lying when I told them I was the only available operator in the entire city at that moment.

It stayed like this until the day she suddenly quit. Just like that, the nightmare ended and the job -- as short-lived as it was going to be -- suddenly became 1000x better. I’d survived, but to this day I wonder what it was that I did to earn that kind of treatment. A part of me just wants to believe that she was a bad person who needed a scapegoat to help her get through her own misery -- but nothing is ever that simple is it?

None of us can expect to go through life being universally beloved, but we can at least hope that we might not be actively detested -- especially for no other reason than being yourself. It’s a stomach-churning, insomnia-inducing situation to find yourself in and it happens to people all the time. My story is far from unique. Every day people go in to work at jobs they can’t afford to quit with co-workers who make a genuine effort to bully and humiliate them. Too often fighting back isn’t an option, and even if it is, it’s not guaranteed to make a difference.

I wish I had a solution to this problem, but I don’t. I was clearly ill-equipped to deal with the situation when I faced it and didn’t come away from the experience with any real answers. Perhaps some of you have gone through it too and gained some of the wisdom I was denied. If so, now would be a perfect time to share it.

In the meantime, I will continue polishing my resume, while hoping my next job ends up being more rewarding than interesting. At this point I have enough work stories to last me the rest of my lifetime.